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Understanding the IAEA inspection standards for Iran
The NonProliferation Treaty -- which Iran signed in 1968 -- has three "pillars". First, is that the "recognized" nuclear-armed countries (China, US, Russia, France, Britain -- collectively known as the nuclear weapon states or NWS) must work towards their own disarmament. This of course has been consistently ignored though the US pays lipservice to this goal whenever it wants to extract additional concessions (such as the indefinite extention of the NPT in 2000).
Second, is that the rest of the signatories -- the non-nuclear weapons states ("NNWS") --agreed to abide by "safeguards agreements" to ensure that they are not building nuclear weapons and to allow the IAEA -- which is a body separate from the NPT (the membership of the IAEA and the signatories to the NPT overlap but are not the same) -- to inspect nuclear material and sites in their countries to ensure that none of the material has been diverted to non-peaceful uses.
Third, is the recognition that all signatories are entitled to obtain and share nuclear technology to the "greatest extent possible" and "without discrimination".People tend to forget that the NPT is not just about non-proliferation of weapons; it is also about promoting nuclear technology. In fact the NWS are obligated by the treaty to share their know-how with the NNWS (including sharing data on test nuclear explosions) and to NOT share nuclear technology with NON-signatories such as Israel and India. Needless to say this provision has been violated by the US too -- the US has shared nuclear technology and aid with Israel, and more recently it has unilaterally carved an exception for India too (which was used to bribe India into voting against Iran at the IAEA Board.) The US has also led efforts to limit the sharing of nuclear know-how, especially in the area of enrichment -- ostensibly for the sake of preventing the proliferation of weapons but the Developing nations say this is an effort to monopolize the process of making reactor fuel and in effect making a cartel of fuel providers to the rest of the world.
When Iran signed the NonProliferation Treaty, it also agreed to a safeguards agreement -- which is a standard document -- which specifie the details of the process for IAEA inspections. According to this standard safeguards, countries are required to formally declare their nuclear material they have and the locations where they are stored, and the role of the IAEA inspectors is to visit those sites and measure the nuclear material to ensure non-diversion of that declared material. In fact if you read the text of Iran's safeguards agreement, that is the EXCLUSIVE PURPOSE of the IAEA inspections -- solely to meausre declared nuclear material. Once the inspectors perform this task they certify that all declared nuclear materials are accounted for an none has been diverted to non-peaceful uses. That's the legal standard that has to be achieved, and every single IAEA report has said that is the case with Iran.
IF the IAEA discovers that a country has not declared all of its nuclear material and activities, it can present the evidence to the IAEA Board of Governors and obtain a "special inspections" permit that the country in question would be obligated to permit -- this has rarely happened (I think Romania and North Korea were the only cases -- and in the case of North Korea, it had exercised its right under Article X of the NPT to withdraw from the treaty anyway.)
However, Saddam Hussein showed that it is possible that a country does not declare all of its nuclear material, and maintains undelcared nuclear material/activities that are not discovered. So a new form of safeguards agreement was created, known as the Additional Protocol (AP) which gives the inspectors further powers and tightens up the inspections process.The Additional Protocol, however, is an entirely new document and countries are not required to sign it, though the US has promoted various twisted legal theories on why it should be legally obligatory.
Once the inspectors complete their inspections of a country that has signed the AP, they then certify that not only has there been no diversion of declared nuclear material to non-peaceful uses but furthermore that there are no undeclared nuclear activities/material either. THen, and ONLY THEN, does the IAEA certify that a country's nuclear program is "exclusively peaceful".
Many nations have not agreed to the AP and say that they're not willing to make additional concessions on their nuclear rights by agreeing to the AP when the NWS are still not abiding by their end of the NPT bargain. These include countries such as Brazil and Argentina, which have enrichment programs. Egypt is another one.
Iran has said that it is willing to abide by the AP as long as its right to enrich uranium has also been recognized but the US refuses (The US has been trying to limit the spread of enrichment technolgoy, arguing that it is too "sensitive" but developing nations in particular say that the US and allies are actually just creating a cartel for nuclear fuel production under the guise of non-proliferation.) In fact Iran signed (but did not ratify) the AP, and voluntarily implemented it for about 2 years, allowing the IAEA inspectors to go wherever they wanted. Indeed Iran allowed inspections that exceeded even th requirements of the AP -- and nothing was found. The IAEA said clearly that it has no concrete evidence that there is or has been a nuclear weapons program in Iran and IAEA officials publicly complained that the "intelligence" provided by the US was mostly bogus contrary to the steady stream of innuendo and hype promoted in the media.
No we come to Parchin. This is a military based which is used to test explosives. When previous IAEA inspections of Iran failed to turn up any evidence of a nuclear weapons program, people like David Albright at ISIS raised a hue and cry about this place, arguing that it was suspicious (if you read his paper, the only basis for the suspicion was that some construction work was carried out there, and the place was a "logical candidate" for secret nuclear work -- that's it.) So eventually the Iranians agreed to allow the IAEA to visit this site even though it fell outside of the IAEA's legal inspections authority (remember, the authority is limited to declared nuclear sites/activities. The IAEA inspectors do not have carte blanche to go whereever they want. Their sole job is to measure declared nuclear material, not to act as investigators.) And when that inspection of Parchin turned up nothing in Jan 2005, Albright raised another hue and cry, and so Iran allowed the inspectors back again in Sept 2005, and again no nuclear materials or activities were found. The IAEA reports thanked Iran for allowing this acccess too.
Years later, there are allegations that Iran has carried out nuclear-related activities at Parchin. What is "nuclear-related" and how does the IAEA now have authority beyond the safeguards agreement to visit non-nuclear sites in search of such activities is not legally clear. The allegation of course is that Iran had an "bus sized" cylindrical steel chamber known as a explosion test chamber that could be used to test detonators which could be used to make bombs. Well, the use of "bus sized" and larger detonation chambers is common worldwide. This is a relatively common piece of commercial/industrial equipment.
There were also scaremongering allegations of a "Soviet nuclear scientists" who had assisted Iran -- until it turned out that this "soviet nuclear scientist" is actually an expert on the manufacture of nano-diamonds using such explosive chambers. And there were claims the detonation tests carried out could not possibly have any civilian applications -- until Robert Kelley a former weapons inspector pointed out that such "explosive bridgewire detonators" are commonly used for a variety of civilian applications including by oil producing countries such as Iran to make controlled holes in pipelines. I have to go now so I'll just link to some more reading here and here.